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World War II--Impressions of a six-year-old

I am a Baby Boom Baby, born in 1949.  While the world was still being patched back together from World War II, my greatest priority was to serve as my first-grade teacher's "swing-along" reader.  My mother had taught me to read when I was 4 and 5 on the braided rug in front of our fireplace.  Mothers weren't supposed to do that, according to the educational theories of the day; but my mother taught me, anyway, because I wanted to learn.  She made a paper train of words on rectangular pieces of paper, from a caboose to an engine, with varying numbers of cars between, with the words growing more difficult as they progressed.  If I read all of them correctly, at the engine, there was a penny or a gum drop, and a hug.  If I missed a word, we just started over.  By the first grade, in 1956, I didn't just say individual words, but strung them together, with a kind of rhythm.  Thus, "swing-along."  My teacher took all the credit when parents came to visit, but I never thought about things like that when I was 6.

I had never heard of the war, I don't think, or only in some passing comment by my parents, how they had worked at Reynolds Aluminum, making aluminum for wing parts, and that's how my father was never called to active duty. I don't think the whole idea of "war" was something I could truly conceive of, just like I had heard the word "death," but had no idea what it was and it certainly didn't apply to me or my family.

As far as I knew, everyone basically loved everyone else.  We didn't have a television set until I was in the second grade, and I did become more aware that year, perhaps, that the world was not perfect.  But, I might not have.  We only had one channel, which was local, and the only person I sometimes hated was my older sister, and I would tell her to shut up.  "Shut up" was a bad thing to say in our house, and when my mother heard us fighting and using the "bad words," she would make us put our foreheads together for about ten minutes until we could make up.  She never knew that in those ten minutes my sister was droning beneath her breath a continuous stream of "shutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutup."  I dared not tattle because my mother would only give us the the "forehead" punishment again.

These fights with my sister, whom I usually loved, were the most difficult part of my life at six.  I had never heard of real trains full of real people, who were given no names as they were shoved like animals into hot and airless railroad cars.  I had never heard of dark words like Dachau or Auschwitz.  I had perhaps seen pictures of Hitler in newsreels that came on before a movie; but, in the first grade we stuck to reading about Dick and Jane chasing Spot and learning to add and subtract and to make paper cut-out snowflakes for the windows at Christmas.

If someone had held pictures of someone released, just barely bones, from a concentration camp or had told me how people had been put in gas chambers, I don't think I would have comprehended it in any real way at that time in my life.  I still believed in the basic goodness of people (not that I thought about it as such).  I just still believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and, like my teacher taught me, that George Washington never told a lie. 

Yet, there had been children, much younger than I in World War II who had been taken from their parents and put into labor camps or gas chambers or burned alive.   They faced the worst terrors and evil of the world while I was yet unborn. 

In 1956, wearing my Buster Brown shoes and placing my hand in my mother's gloved one as we walked down the sidewalks of a small southern town to the park to watch the humongous goldfish in the pond there--swimming among fallen bird feathers--it was good that I had that time of innocence still.  There would be plenty of time to learn of and feel the horror later; plenty of time to understand that Washington--and all other presidents--no doubt, have lied; and plenty of wars and needless suffering--and terrible griefs and losses of my own.